Cabrini Partnership Offers PCOM Research Experience for Undergraduates
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Cabrini Partnership Offers Research Experience for Undergrads

September 6, 2023

Cabrini student Brian Fuller works with a PCOM professor on a research project as part of the partnershipBrian Fuller's interest in scientific research began through sports, as an athlete throughout childhood and as avid gym goer to this day at age 36. Playing baseball, football, and basketball helped him understand what muscles needed to be strong and for what reasons, as well as what's happening inside the body before, during and after it is put to use. A passion for bodybuilding and its intricacies took his interest in biology and physiology to new heights, due in part to the discipline's focus on joint articulations.

Combine that with parents who worked in the pharmaceutical industry, and Fuller jokes that he could say words like gastroenterology in kindergarten or explain drug launches to friends when he was still young enough to fall out of his bed at night.

Now a nontraditional student majoring in biology at Cabrini University, Fuller is part of a partnership between Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) and Cabrini that offers research opportunities for historically underrepresented students majoring in science and psychology.

Cabrini students work with PCOM faculty, staff and students as part of medical research teams. Over eight weeks, students learn how to formulate research questions and hypotheses, design experiments, record results, interpret data and present their findings as part of an oral presentation at PCOM.

This was Fuller's third summer in the program, and his commitment to research has blossomed so much that he can often be seen in the lab of Kerin Claeson, PhD, a professor of anatomy who specializes in evolutionary biology, on days where he's not required to be there so that he can advance projects.

Cabrini student Brian Fuller in front of his research poster about lungfish fossils“I can't get enough of it,” Fuller said. “I'm hooked on using my brain instead of my body to feel fulfilled.”

Lab skills he's acquired and honed include imaging software for—and processing enormous data sets of CT scans about—fossils estimated to be from the Cretaceous. His particular focus is examining lungfish fossils, which are estimated to be about 70 million years old, from Madagascar.

“Every time I step in here, I'm challenged. I'm not spoon-fed information,” said Fuller, adding that the program showed him that his passion lies in ecology and sedimentology. “Sometimes it gets exhausting, but I come back because I'm supported, because I'm encouraged, I'm made to feel that I belong, and because of the skills I'm picking up.”

Claeson said that she and her research assistant, Alfonsina Ramón, credit Fuller with bringing new enthusiasm to the lab, calling Fridays (Fuller's main day at PCOM) her “favorite day of the week over this last year, because the three of us were sitting in the lab, collaborating, talking.” In October, Fuller is presenting their lungfish fossil project at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

“I knew I was getting an undergraduate, but the experiences he had before and being very interested in what he was learning actually had him behave like a graduate student from the get go,” Claeson said. “And in comparison to other students I've worked with, he's at the very top.”

Moving Science Forward

Steven Morency, 21, a senior majoring in biology at Cabrini, knew that Fuller and another classmate had both gone through the program, though he hadn't heard of PCOM before his nomination for it.

Cabrini student Steven Morency smiles in a lab coat in a PCOM research lab“They do a lot of cool stuff here,” he said, emphasizing his interest in forensic medicine (PCOM offers a master's degree in the discipline). “The skills I'm learning here now can help me in the future.”

During his time in the lab, he's been examining lens and cornea tissue and labeling and staining specimens using immunofluorescence. He's also engaged in using a microtome to cut paraffin-embedded tissue and placing it on a hot plate overnight to dry. From there, the specimens are labeled and stained.

“I view science as constantly growing and changing, which also sums up my life. The more realms of science I get exposed to, the more my curiosity to learn about them flourishes,” Morency said. “Ever since I was young, I have dreamed and aspired to become a scientist because I was always curious and always wanted to figure out why things happen.”

PCOM gained two employees over the history of the program, one part-time and one full-time, as well as former students who come back to the college to volunteer, said Jacquelyn Gerhart, MS, director of the bioimaging facility and coordinator of research support staff at PCOM and a mentor in the program, which is organized by the Division of Research, Admissions and the Office of Diversity and Community Relations.

Gerhart is also a two-time Cabrini alumna who credits her employment at PCOM—which has spanned three decades—from a connection she made during an internship with a part-time PCOM faculty member. Former program participants “are always welcome back,” she said.

“The students are amazing and move projects along,” said Gerhart, adding that new perspectives—like those the mentees bring—contribute to advancing research. “Young people and diverse ideas move science forward.”

  • Learn more about research at PCOM.
  • View other PCOM student research projects.
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